The best books of 2018: None were about Trump — and yet all were about Trump
Careful readers of this column — and I know you’re out there somewhere — must realize it’s getting awfully late for the annual Mike Littwin’s Best Books I Have Read in (fill in year) column. So here it is, on the cusp of a new year, and before we proceed, I must get one thing out of the way.
As we bid goodbye to 2018, the year of the oh-so-many Trump books, I proudly admit I have read exactly none of them. Not the Wolff book (although I did read the excerpts), not the Woodward book (OK, I did read part of it, but gave up in despair), certainly not the Omarosa book or the Carlson book or any of the Fox News hagiographies.
I’m not generally an escapist reader, but escaping from Trump for a few hours a day is a mental-health necessity. I spend countless hours each day reading and writing and thinking about the endless Trump craziness. It’s my job. The secret to Trump’s success, such as it is, is to create so many scandals a day that, by the end of the week, you’re dizzy with contempt and lost in confusion. All I wanted for Christmas (or Hanukkah) was just one day when nothing happened — one day when the headline is just, say, Trump Pardons Turkey instead of Trump withdraws from Syria on the advice of Turkish dictator.
Watching sports helps, at least when the Broncos aren’t playing. But books have always been my refuge. But books on Trump? No, thanks. Cable TV news on Trump? Only when it’s unavoidable. War on Christmas with Trump — or did you miss when Trump told the little girl that believing in Santa at seven years old is pretty marginal? Watching Trump’s video of himself in a Green Acres spoof as he signs the farm bill — you’re kidding, right? (If you want a great political movie, by the way, watch “The Death of Stalin.” It’s streaming on Amazon Prime.)
And yet. As I went through my list of best reads, I was shocked to see that nearly all of them were at least tangentially about TrumpWorld. Or maybe it’s just my own personal hell to see Trump wherever I look. I recommend them anyway. I guarantee each one easily beats yet another night of cable TV news.
“Exit West,” by Mohsin Hamid
We’ll start with a book about magic doors as an escape hatch for middle-class refugees from an unnamed authoritarian country. The doors are magic but the risks when you come out on the other side are all too real. This brilliantly written book about the costs of exile and the hope for safety and maybe freedom is a book for the Trump era — in which the life of refugees has become one more Trumpian story of cruelty and neglect and of children who die in the hands of the government. Meanwhile, that same government shuts down over an argument about putting up a useless wall.
“Sing, Unburied, Sing,” by Jesmyn Ward
The year 2018 was another big one for bigotry, and Jesmyn Ward’s novel is lush response, with a ghost playing a starring role. The story is of a drug-addicted black mother and her two children on their road trip to pick up their white father from prison. It takes place in Mississippi because where else would you put this story. The most memorable character is the son, Jo Jo, a 13-year-old boy who protects his 3-year-old sister from their mother he knows too well and from a world he’s just beginning to learn about. Some critics have compared the book to Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” which is about as good a recommendation as you could ask for.
“Washington Black,” by Esi Edugyan
This is my favorite book of 2018. It tells the story of an 11-year-old black slave in Barbados, invoking all the terror of sugar-plantation life. But it is not the story you might think. It can’t be once you know young Washington escapes, along with a white man whose brother owns the plantation, in a hot-air balloon. The journey takes him — a burgeoning artist and scientist — literally around the world in search of something he can’t quite grasp and of a friendship that he thinks might define him. Maybe the lesson for the year is how difficult it is to take reality head on.
“We Were Eight Years in Power,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates is not afraid of reality. He’s not afraid of trying to explain the reality of where we are and how we got here, as he does, often beautifully, in this collection of essays written for The Atlantic during the Obama years. But that is not to say he isn’t discouraged. The election of Obama, the inevitable racist backlash, the re-election of Obama, the viciously racist backlash that led, somehow, to Donald Trump, who is the two-years-in-power-so-far repudiation. The book is about Obama’s eight years and about Coates’ own growth as a writer and thinker during that time. If you’ve read Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” you know you have to read this one.
“Grant,” by Ron Chernow
Chernow, the great biographer, does much in this book to rescue Grant’s presidency, but that’s hardly the point you take from the book. The point is that Grant was a hero in the Jimmy Stewart mold of heroes —who, during a time of war, of hate, of injustice, of economic inequality, often did the right thing because it was the right thing. I doubt if Chernow — whose brilliant “Hamilton” I also read ths year; if you can’t see the musical, try the book it was sort of based on — set out to write a life in such direct contrast to Trump’s. But there it is.
“The Feral Detective,” by Jonathan Lethem
This is not Lethem’s best book (“Motherless Brooklyn,” “Fortress of Solitude”), but any book by Lethem is an event. And this is the first novel I know of that directly takes on Trump. Well, sort of directly. It’s a noir detective story of a missing young woman that takes place in the California desert and stars a detective out of Chandler, who keeps a possum in his desk drawer, and a client out of the New York Times, who quit her job there after Trump’s victory. It also co-stars hippie-born warring tribes of Bears and Rabbits.
“The Mars Room,” by Rachel Kushner
Since we’re on the topic of today’s America, we should get to being female and poor, which, in Kushner’s novel, takes us to Stanville prison for women where Romy Hall — a single mother and former lap-dancer — is serving two life sentences plus six years. Kushner is funny and sharp on the subject of how you live when every day is followed by the same day. You might have seen glimpses of characters like hers in “Orange Is the New Black,” but reading Kushner is a whole other experience, which she describes in Romy Hall’s bus ride to prison, when she says the women are moved only late at night — “anything to shield the regular people from having to look at us.” (I’ve got “American Prison”, by Shane Bauer, who spent four months as an undercover guard at a Louisiana privately-run prison, on my list for 2019.)
Some others: “Warlight,” by Michael Ondaatje. “Last stories,” by William Trevor, who died in 2016 at 88. “Churchill and Orwell,” by Thomas Ricks. I can foresee a sequel: Trump and Hannity, by Tucker Carlson.